Movie Reviews - 2013 postsFriday February 21, 2014
Movie Review: The Past (2013)
In Asghar Farhadi’s “Le passé” (“The Past”), we often see the thing before knowing what the thing means.
So a pretty woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), greets a man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), arriving at the airport, with a smile and a wave, but he’s not her lover; he’s her estranged husband returning to sign the divorce papers. So her lover, Samir (Tahar Rahim of “Un Prophete”), lies in bed while she administers eyedrops to him. The next day, in by-the-way fashion, we discover he’s allergic to all the paint scattered around the house. So the oldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is distant and uncommunicative with her mother. The story behind that, with its many twists and turns, takes most of the movie to tell.
We first see the thing, in other words, then we find out its past.
This is a beautiful movie, by the way. There are small, exquisite scenes. It all seems so simple. I kept wondering, “Why can’t other filmmakers make scenes that feel this real, this straightforward, this interesting?”
I’m thinking of an early scene. Ahmad arrives and expects to get a hotel room, but Marie is putting him up at her place. Is he thinking they’ll sleep together? One last time? But he finds out she’s living with a guy. Samir. He’s dropped into a situation. As are we.
There are two kids playing in her small yard: a boy and a girl. You expect them to squeal with delight when they see Ahmad but it takes a moment before the girl, Léa (Jeanne Justin), even realizes who he is; and even then the boy, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), just squints, frowns, doesn’t get it. But he doesn’t like it. This new man helps blowdry his mother’s hair? That seems ... wrong. (To us, too.) He has to move bedrooms to accommodate him? Fouad does so petulantly, dragging his blankets and pillows around, saying “What a pain.” Ahmad is gentle with him, though. He talks to him. By now we know Ahmad is not the boy’s father but it’s not until Fouad drags his pillow and blankets back downstairs and knocks over the paintcan in the hallway, and Marie blows up, chasing him around, that we find out she’s not his mother, either. “You’re not my mother!” he shouts. Then she leaves for work at a pharmacy and Ahmad is left to clean up both messes: the physical and the metaphoric. He does so with calm and grace. He gives the boy the one thing he doesn’t have: power and control. “Is it because I’m here?” he asks, about the acting out. “Do you want me to leave?” he asks. There’s a pause. Then Fouad quietly shakes his head.
That the small, exquisite scene I was thinking of.
The movie keeps doing this. There’s a moment, halfway through, with Samir and Marie in their car. Tensions have risen in the home, and between them, because, you know, her ex is staying with them. They kind of look alike, too, Samir and Ahmad. At least Lucie points this out to Ahmad. Does Samir wonder about it? In the car, stuck in traffic, they’re silent. Samir is driving, manual, then finds Marie’s hand on his on the stick. A conciliatory gesture? He looks at their hands together, then over at Marie, but she has her eyes closed as if in reverie. Is she thinking of Samir ... or Ahmad? Or is she just tired? But he shakes her hand off, which startles her awake. Now she wonders: Is he angry?
It’s a small, everyday scene, but so much is suggested by it.
Revelations keep coming. What happened to Fouad’s mother? Turns out she’s in a coma. For much of the movie, Ahmad is like a gentle detective of the heart, trying to figure out why Lucie, who is not his child, (none of them are), is estranged from Marie. It’s like peeling an onion. One answer just leads to another, deeper answer.
First Lucie says she doesn’t like “that jerk,” Samir. Then she admits it’s more about her mother: Men stay for a few years, then leave, and Lucie is tired of it. Ahmad is implicated here, too. Then Lucie admits it’s the affair: her mother had an affair with Samir, and afterwards Samir’s wife tried to kill herself, and that’s why she’s in a coma. They caused it. With their affair. Awful stuff. Or did they? Samir doesn’t think so. He runs a dry cleaner, and five days before the suicide attempt his wife had a meltdown with a customer. The attempted suicide had nothing to do with him and Marie. His wife didn’t even know about it.
Except she did. Because Lucie told her. That’s the awful secret Lucie’s been carrying. That’s why she’s been distant. She can’t bear her own culpability.
In this way we keep getting deeper into the past until it threatens the stability of the present. Or is it merely clearing the way for the present? Or both?
The last third of the movie belongs to Samir, who begins his own detective work of the heart. Lucie called his wife at the dry cleaner’s the day before her suicide? But his wife wasn’t at the dry cleaner’s the day before her suicide. So is Lucie lying? Or is there another explanation?
Near the end, we get talk about letting go of the past, living in the present, yadda yadda. A lesser movie would’ve gone in this direction. It would’ve given us this wish-fulfillment fantasy, this correct way of being, this problem solved. Not here. Here, Samir visits his comatose wife, bringing along her perfumes and his cologne in a last-ditch effort to revive her. He’s heard the olfactory memory is our longest-lasting—Proust was right about that—and he wants to test it. But nothing happens. And we see him walking away from the room, and down the hallway, and away from the past.
A lesser movie would’ve ended there.
But Samir stops, turns, pauses. A better movie might’ve ended there: man forever caught between past and present, like Antoine Doinel at the shore.
Instead, Farhadi (“A Separation”) has Samir walk back into the room. He tries once more with the cologne. “If you can hear me,” he tells his wife, “squeeze my hand.” Then the camera pans to his hand in her open hand. We’re watching, waiting, for any movement. But there isn’t any. That’s it.
And that’s the best ending of all for “The Past.” A man being held, and not, by something that’s dead, and isn’t.
Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
Here we go again.
I wasn’t a fan of the first “Kick-Ass,” which began as an ironic look at superheroes but quickly became, with the introduction of Big Daddy and Hit Girl (Nic Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz), another wish-fulfillment fantasy about superheroes—just with more kill shots and swear words.
“Kick-Ass 2” still pretends to be living in a world without superpowered beings but that doesn’t mean its characters can’t do superpowered things. Big Daddy’s gone, without even a picture to remember him by (Cage, one assumes, would get paid for that), but Hit Girl can still take out 20 people by herself. “Robin wishes he were me,” she says.
More, in the wake of Kick-Ass’s exploits, ordinary citizens have come forward to act as superheroes: Col. Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison), Night Bitch (Lindy Booth). The Colonel is an old mob enforcer who has turned to the light side, and he, too, can take out 10 bad guys simultaneously in the manner of Batman-y, Matrix-y, Hollywood-via-Hong-Kong slow-mo martial arts madness. Hell, even Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) can do this now. He’s not a skinny kid anymore. He’s completely cut. He’s got a ridiculously sculptured body. Apparently all it takes is a good montage sequence. Fucking Rocky.
It’s a few years after the original movie, and Dave has hung up his Kick-Ass tights even as he hungers for more action. Meanwhile, Hit Girl, Mindy Macready, now raised by her father’s friend, Det. Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), enters high school: freshman to Dave’s senior.
But they’re on different paths. She makes a promise to Marcus not to be a superhero anymore, which leaves her to walk the more perilous path of schoolgirl popularity contests, while he wants to do nothing but fight crime. He does this by joining a team, Justice Forever, led by Col. Stars and Stripes. Their first big case? Breaking up a sex-slave ring run by Chinese triad members. They do it without breaking much of a sweat. Then they high-five each other and whoop it up. Then Kick Ass and Night Bitch have sex in a toilet stall.
Unbeknownst to all, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the former Red Mist, whose father, Frank (Mark Strong), a ruthless mob boss, was killed by Kick-Ass at the end of the last movie, is plotting revenge in his whiny, pathetic fashion. First he accidentally kills his mom by kicking her tanning booth. Then he hires MMA guys to train him in the ways of fighting. But he lacks discipline. Since he doesn’t lack for money, he simply hires his team of supervillains, including Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), a butchier Brigitte Nielsen, who, in one sequence, kills 10 cops, two by two, in a quiet suburban neighborhood. She also kills Col. Stars and Stripes.
Of course the cops react poorly to the death of 10 cops and crack down on all costumed wannabes, villains and heroes. When they show up at Dave’s house, Dave’s father, Mr. Lizewski (Garrett M. Brown), with whom Dave has been fighting, takes the rap, then dies in prison at the hands of Chris D’Amico’s goons, who take a cellphone picture and send it to Dave.
All this time, by the way, we’ve been getting bits of Mindy’s costumeless life. The popular, bitchy girls, led by Brooke (Claudia Lee), befriend her but don’t really. When Mindy wins some cheerleader tryouts, with her martial arts madness routine, even over Brooke’s sexyback number, she has to pay. What happens? A cute boy, whom she asks out, takes her into the woods, where the other girls say mean things and leave. That’s it. But she’s hurt. So she teachers them a lesson. How? By using a sonic device that causes people to vomit and shit at the same time.
The worst of times, the worst of times
Eventually, of course, she’s pulled back in, and there’s a big showdown at the supervillains’ lair. Kick Ass and Hit Girl walk in alone and D’Amico, now The Motherfucker, laughs and says, in essence, the two of you against all of us? At which point doors open and all the rest of the superheroes waltz in and stand and pose. It’s a superhero moment. Awful, unironic version.
I really do hate these movies. It’s partly the crudity, partly the stupidity, but mostly the lie: the lie that we’re too hip to want the wish-fulfillment fantasy. Feeling nothing via irony is, I suppose, just a short step from wishing to feel nothing through invulnerability, but they’re still both childish wishes. It’s the worst of both worlds.
Movie Review: Lone Survivor (2013)
“Lone Survivor,” the movie, starring Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, is based upon Luttrell’s book, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.” It’s a good title for a book but a bad one for a movie.
If you’ve seen the trailer you know four Navy SEALS come across three goat herders in the enemy mountains of Afghanistan and let them go (crossing their fingers) rather than kill them. Then they’re pursued by the Taliban up and down those mountains. Mostly down. It’s the anti-My Lai story. Our men do the right thing and die as a result.
But with that background, and that title, what don’t we know going in? Which one survives? One assumes it’s Wahlberg, even without knowing he plays Luttrell, since he’s the star. So what don’t we know?
We don’t know this: the deus ex machina. For a moment, three-quarters through the movie, it looks like it’s going to be the traditional one: the U.S. military; the cavalry.
Nope. The deus ex machina is the most intriguing thing about “Lone Survivor.” It’s also the most glossed-over. It’s as if the movie doesn’t realize the story it has.
I thought it was brutal during the opening credits, when we got real-life footage of Navy SEALS during their insane training—e.g.: chained and dropped in pools so they learn to suffocate without panicking—but that’s merely to show us who these men are, and why they’ll cope with the brutality to come. They’ve been trained for it. They’ve been trained to keep going.
It begins, as so many of our stories do these days, at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, where we meet our four young men. They wake up. They give each other shit. Two of them race around the airbase in shorts and tennis shoes but the skinny one, Danny (Emile Hirsch), loses in the end to the buffer one, Mike (Taylor Kitsch), who is something of a legend. They eat breakfast and give shit to the new guy, Shane (Alexander Ludwig), who is buff and beardless and wants to fit in. They talk about their wives or girls back home. One girl wants an Arabian horse but the dude keeps calling it an Arabic horse. Marcus is from Texas. Mike is respected.
Could we have learned more about these guys early on? Surely there was more to know. Instead, this shorthand. They’re guys in a beer commercial now.
Then off they go on a mission. Something about beers: Corona, Miller, Heineken. Something about Rick James. Something about Spartan Zero One.
Eventually we realize, “Oh, they’re Spartan Zero One, the beers are location points on the way to the target, who is Rick James, a.k.a. “Superfreak,” a.k.a. Shah (Yousef Azami), the dark-eyed Taliban leader who’s been assassinating U.S. Marines. They’re supposed to get in, kill him, get out.
They spot him, too. High up on the hill above their target, they have him in their sites. But they move to higher ground. Then the goat herders come: an old man, a boy, an angry teen.
Matt (Ben Foster, steely-eyed) counsels killing them. He nods to his brothers. “I care about you, I care about you, I care about you,” he says. “I don’t care about them.” Marcus is against it. It’s against the rules of engagement, he says. If it winds up on CNN they’re fucked, he says. Mike, the leader, follows Marcus’ logic and lets the goatherders go. But as the men climb to higher ground, the mission compromised, they lose communication with Bagram. Meanwhile, the angry teen bounds down the mountain like he’s a parkour expert. Our men are barely situated up top before they’re surrounded; before the firefight begins.
We know we lose three, right? So how many do they lose? That’s how I kept interested during all the fighting. I counted the kill shots. I got up to 23. Still the Taliban keep coming. There’s no end to them. And our guys keep getting hit, too, and wounded, and escaping by basically falling down the mountain, out of control, and smashing into trees and rocks. It is, as I’ve said, brutal. But they keep going. Until they can’t go on anymore. One by one, bloodied beyond recognition, they stop moving.
Until there’s one left.
So how is Marcus saved?
For a moment it looks like other SEALS at Bagram will save him. They show up in a Chinook helicopter. But the Taliban has an RPG and down goes the helicopter in a burst of flame. So much for my 23-3 tally. And Marcus is on his own again.
He crawls to a safe spot and rests; then he collapses into a pool of water. When he looks up, three Afghanis are standing there. They help him but he doesn’t trust them. They drag him to their village and feed him. Still he doesn’t trust them. But they go out of their way to save him. This is particularly true of Mohammad Gulab (Ali Suliman), the village leader. The Taliban come into their village and are told to leave. The Taliban return, and there’s a firefight, and the right-hand man of the Shah is killed in hand-to-hand combat by Gulab. It all feels like bullshit but most of it isn’t. “Why are you doing this for me?” Marcus keeps asking. Right. Exactly. That’s what we want to know.
We find out in an afterword. Gulab was simply following a code of honor called Pashtunwali. Its first principle is melmastia: “showing hospitality and profound respect to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status.” Its second principle is nanawatai: “...protection given to a person against his or her enemies.” The third is justice, the fourth bravery. That’s why.
The movie ends with Luttrell’s rescue but the story continued for Gulab. From MensJournal.com:
Shortly after Luttrell was airlifted to safety by Green Berets in 2005, Gulab and his family became top Taliban targets. “They have a bounty on his head,” Luttrell says. “He’s been shot, his car’s been blown up, and his house has been burned down.” Gulab soon reached out to Luttrell, who arranged for the Afghan to visit him on his ranch northwest of Houston. ... Luttrell and Berg knew the film would bring renewed Taliban scrutiny upon Gulab and are currently working on obtaining U.S. visas for the Afghan and his family. “I knew we needed to get him and his family out of Afghanistan and offer asylum if he wants it,” Berg says. “But Gulab is a proud fighter. His attitude is, ‘I sleep with two AKs; if they want to come, they know where I am.’”
You know what the above sounds like to me? A movie. A better movie than this one. Unfortunately it’s about someone who doesn’t even speak English. Hollywood doesn’t tell those tales often.
At the end of “Lone Survivor,” in voiceover, we hear the following from Luttrell:
I died up on that mountain. There is no question a part of me will forever be up on that mountain, dead as my brothers died. But there is a part of me that lived. Because of my brothers, because of them, I am still alive ...
Well, one other guy helped.
Movie Review: Red 2 (2013)
How did we get to this point? Where this is entertainment? Movie-star relics pretending to be Cold War relics zipping around the globe for a game of hide and seek the weapon of mass destruction?
Let’s take it from the top.
In 1979, a British scientist named Bailey created something, codenamed “Nightshade,” that could alter the balance of power. In Britain’s favor? That’s never raised. For some reason he was ... in Moscow? Am I getting that wrong? He was being guarded by CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and maybe Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), rather than MI-6, when he was killed, and that was that, until suddenly some top-secret “Nightshade” document pops up on Wikipedia and everyone’s trying to kill everyone. The U.S. government wants both Frank and Marvin dead. Just cuz? Or do they think they’re the leakers? Whichever, they put a hit out on Frank. They hire the world’s top assassin, Han Cho Bai (Lee Byung-hun), and maybe old pal Victoria, too (Helen Mirren). But Victoria proves a pal, teaming up with Frank rather than killing him, while Han plays Kato to Frank’s Inspector Clouseau: popping up throughout the movie and failing to off him. Hi-ya! Later he teams up with everyone to save the world. Or at least London and Washington, D.C. Assassins of the world, unite!
All the old Cold War powers keep bumping into each other and people keeping dying. The U.S., in the form of Jack Horton (Neal McDonough), is particularly interested in keeping Nightshade hush-hush. We watch as Jack kills a five-star general in his Pentagon office when he suggests going public. The U.S.S.R., in the shapelier form of Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), tries to seduce Frank, as in days of old, which leads to the subplot of Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), Frank’s girl, wringing her hands over these matters and getting involved in the spy game. Which she totally wanted to do anyway.
I’ll be like the movie and cut to the chase: Bailey (Anthony Hopkins) is alive. He’s been kept in an MI-6 prison for the criminally insane for 32 years. Not because he was behind “Nightshade,” which was really something called “Red Mercury”—which was, and is, a WMD that’s completely undetectable (for now)—but because back then he wanted to use it on the Soviets. Bad form. Drawring outside the lines, as it were.
But why do they have to go to France to talk to “The Frog” (David Thewlis) anyway? Because he has a security deposit key that contains info on ... Bailey? How do they know this? Was it on the Wikipedia page? And why couldn’t they get a French actor for “The Frog”?
No, they go to Paris, because Paris is part of the bang-zoom, ping-pong, zip-a-dee-doo-dah of the movie. They begin at a Costco in Somewhere, America, which leads to incarceration and shootout in New York City, then same in Paris, then same in London, then same in Moscow, then back to London and the Iranian embassy there. By this point, Bailey, that sly dog, has conned Frank and Victoria (into setting him free), Jack Horton (into thinking he’d teamed up with him), and the Iranians (into thinking he’d sell them Red Mercury). But the last con belongs to Frank, who slips the ticking Red Mercury bomb onto Bailey’s plane, which used to be Frank’s, which used to be Han’s, and it blows up mid-air, setting off beautiful colors. And radiation? Are there after-effects we don’t know about? Please.
Overall, Mary-Louise Parker’s shtick gets old, Malkovich’s isn’t bad, and Willis doesn’t really have any. He seems ready for retirement. The Han subplot, meanwhile, is vaguely insulting, while the overall shtick (glib conversations about or while killing people) is vaguely nauseating when you think about it.
I liked Hopkins. He has a great line-reading, almost mumbled: “They really do throw us away after giving them the best years of our lives. Bit of a shame, really.” There’s something in the way he says it. It’s not just glib dialogue. It has ... what’s the word? ... meaning.
Movie Review: Frozen (2013)
I saw the movie “Frozen” the same day I saw the musical “Wicked” on Broadway, which is about the most girly day a 51-year-old straight man in New York on business can have.
Both stories pass the Bechdel Test by a mile. Each is about two girls—one a princess, the other more tomboyish—who have powers others want to control. There are boys in the story, sure, but the most important relationship is with the other girl. Because each, in the end, sets the other free. Each, in the end, helps the other defy gravity.
What’s truly interesting, though, is how each story updates fairy tales for the 21st century.
Updating fairy tales
“Wicked” may have the more interesting take, since it upends the pretty-girl-is-good/ ugly-girl-is-bad dynamic. Its hero is Elphaba (Lindsay Mendez), green-faced, and the future Wicked Witch of the West, who is ostracized from birth and belittled at school, but who, with the help of Galinda, or Glinda (a hilarious Alli Mauzey), comes to realize her power and takes on the corrupt patriarchy as represented by the Wizard of Oz. As “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” did with “Hamlet,” so “Wicked” does with “Oz.” We go behind the scenes, as it were, and discover that the story we know isn’t the real story. The Wicked Witch is really good, and in cahoots with Glinda, and the Scarecrow is her lover. Most importantly, instead of the ugly becoming pretty via a kiss or love or happenstance, as in many fairy tales, the pretty, or the handsome, becomes deformed. The lesson isn’t “We are now beautiful and thus whole”; it’s “We are in love and thus whole.” It’s the triumph of the marginalized.
In Disney’s “Frozen,” we’re back to pretty, and princess and queens, not to mention Idina Menzel, who originated and won a Tony for playing Elphaba on Broadway, and who here plays Elsa, the older, more powerful sister. Elsa’s “Let It Go” song is basically “Defying Gravity” updated. Same idea. Here I am, fuckers, with all my power. I won’t be held back anymore.
The problem I had with the movie—besides being a 51-year-old man instead of a 10-year-old girl—is that for much of the movie Elsa holds herself back. Not sure what her gameplan is, to be honest. Does she have one?
Elsa has the power to freeze things with a touch of a finger or a wave of her arms, and as a teenager she nearly, accidentally, freezes her younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), to death. So she’s been counseled to keep herself under wraps, and does. Even after their parents die on the high seas, she hides from her sister in her room, and hides her sister and herself in their castle on the hill. But in becoming queen she must descend to be with the people. In doing so, she accidentally unleashes her power and creates a perpetual winter.
Hers isn’t the main story, though. Most girls presumably identify with Anna, the younger girl struggling to keep up with, and connect to, her older sister, and who follows the path of Scarlett, Rose, Bella, Katniss, yadda yadda, by getting to choose between two boys: Kristoff, an everyday iceman, and Hans, a prince. The movie does a good job of making this a tough choice for most of the movie ... until, of course, Hans reveals his evil machinations to take over both kingdoms. That makes it easier.
Here’s the twist. During the course of pursuing Elsa, Anna’s heart is partially frozen, which means she’ll die unless “an act of true love” saves her. And wouldn’t you know it, at the end, as she’s near death, here comes Kristoff racing across the ice. Except! Nearby, Hans has Elsa at a disadvantage and is about to kill her. So Anna intervenes. She sacrifices herself to save her sister. In doing so, she saves herself. That is the act of true love. It’s not passive reception; it’s active sacrifice.
I sat there and thought, “Not bad.”
Three of us watched the movie that night, all of us over 50, but interestingly the women weren’t impressed. At all. They expected greater, Pixarish things from the movie: wit, etc. True, there’s not much of that, and the songs aren’t very memorable, but I was impressed by the animation and the “act of true love” twist. So did our fourth when it was explained to him the next morning. The men liked the twist, the women didn’t. For what it’s worth.
Now I’m waiting on the “Wicked” movie. It’s too good not to put on the screen.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard